Friday, June 9, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom_

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (2008) was the first verse novel by Margarita Engle that I encountered years ago. It is the first book in Engle's "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). The Surrender Tree was a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, only the third verse novel to be recognized by the Newbery committee after Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems (2002) and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1998)Engle was the first Latinx author to receive a Newbery honor.

The Plot: In Engle's The Surrender Tree, poems alternate among the voices of five primary characters to tell a story based upon historical events as well as Engle's own great-grandparents' experiences during Cuba's fight for independence. It take place between 1850 and 1899, during which time three different wars rage in Cuba. The narrative follows Rosa, a healer and nurse; Lieutenant Death, a slavehunter; Jose, Rosa's husband; Weyler, a captain-general of Spain who instituted concentration camps in Cuba to control the rural civilian population; and Silvia, an eleven year old girl from a small farm who comes to learn from Rosa after her family starves in the concentration camps.

The Poetry: The most striking poems in this collection are told in the voices of Rosa and Silvia and meditate upon the natural world as a healing balm for war and sorrow. For instance, in an early poem, Rosa describes the burning city of Bayamo:

I watch the flames, feel the heat,
inhale the scent of torched sugar
and scorched coffee....
I listen to voices,
burning a song in the smoky sky. (28)
Imagery, language, and metaphor are at work in this poem to evoke the sense of beauty and danger brought on by the violence of war. The internal and slant rhymes in the first three lines ("watch," "torched," "scorched") emphasize the crackling sound of the flames, while the image of "voices, / burning a song" links the lives of the people to the fire that engulfs the city. Later in the verse novel, the poems told from Silvia's view point evoke the same lyricism and imagery. In one poem, the speaker describes how the driver of an oxcart helps her steal away from the concentration camp: "He points to a hole int he fence, / puts his finger to his lips, / then draws a map in the sky--" (103). Again, the sky figures heavily into the narrative, and silence lingers at the end of each line of poetry.

The Page: Engle's verse novel is divided into five parts: "The Names of Flowers, 1850-51," "The Ten Years' War, 1868-78," "The Little War, 1878-80," "The War of Independence, 1895-98," and "The Surrender Tree, 1898-99." The novel begins with a dedication and explanation of the historical roots for the narrative, as well as a quote from a poem by Jose Marti. It concludes with an author's note, a historical note, a chronology, selected references, and acknowledgements.

I give The Surrender Tree four stars.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Margarita Engle's _Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck_

The Plot: In Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), a 2012 Pura Belpre Honor Book, Margarita Engle tells a story alternating five characters' perspectives: Quebrado, a young slave of Taino Indian and Spanish ancestry; Bernardino de Talavera, a real-life conquistador who became the first pirate of the Caribbean Sea in the 1500s when he stole a boat to avoid debtors' prison; Alonso de Ojeda, a brutal European slave trader and conquistador who was taken prisoner by Talavera; and two young islanders who are secretly in love -- Caucubu, the daughter of a Ciboney chieftain, and Narido, a fisherman. Engle invented the character Quebrado, but the remaining characters are all historical figures-- two European and two Cuban. Engle reveals in her author's note that she "became fascinated by the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck while researching [her] own family history" as one of her ancestors "was a Cuban pirate who used his treasure to buy the cattle each where many generations of [her] mother's family were born" (135). She notes further that she became the subject of the Cuban DNA project and discovered that she carries a genetic marker verifying tens of thousands of years of maternal Ameindian ancestry; Engle is "a descendant of countless generations of women like Caucubu. Indigenous Cubans do survive in body, as well as spirit" (135).

The Poetry: The majority of Hurricane Dancers meditates upon the enslaved life of Quebrado, who is referred to as "broken boy," "spirit-boy," "storm-boy," and "born-of-wind friend" by various characters throughout the narrative. While the experiences of the other characters in the narrative are interesting, the poems told from Quebrado's perspective are the most lyrical and lively on the page. For instance, the first poem in the collection "Quebrado," begins:
I listen
to the song
of creaking planks,
the roll and sway
of clouds in sky,
wild music
and thunder,
the groans
of wood,
a mourning moan (3).
The poem ends as the speaker links the old ship's sounds with the materials used to create it, explaining that the sounds echo the ship's memory of "her true self / her tree self / ... alive" (3). Poems like this one, steeped in metaphor reflecting the natural world and ringing with sound and rhythm, are characteristic of those told from the point of view of Quebrado.

The Page: Hurricane Dancers is divided into six parts: "Wild Sea," "Brave Earth," "Hidden," "The Sphere Court," "The Sky Horse," and "Far Light." Engle begins her verse novel with a quote uttered by Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest and a description of Talavera from Bartolome de las Casas's History de las Indias; a note on her historical setting; and a list and description of the cast of characters. The verse novel ends with an author's note; a historical note detailing her narrative's connection to historical characters and events, culture and language, and literature; and a list of references.

I found Hurricane Dancers to be extremely engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed Engle's characteristic use of free verse, lyricism, and imagery within her historical narrative. I give Hurricane Dancers four stars and highly recommend it.